Saturday, December 4, 2010

Memory's Turn

"We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement."  --George Eliot, Middlemarch
I just finished reading Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov for class, and I'm always struck by the ending of the novel.  Speaking after the funeral of Ilyusha, the nine-year-old boy that he had befriended, Alyosha tells the other boys who were Ilyusha's classmates,
"You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory... People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory ... is perhaps the best education.  If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one's heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us" (734).
The idea that there is safety in the memory of one's own acts of goodness--in the memory of the goodness of one's own life-- is interesting to me. 

As Eliot suggests in Middlemarch, we all arrive at a dangerous threshold in our lives, an edge marked by moments when we are "led with dull consent," not to commit acts of great evil or injustice, but simply to become less kind and less brilliant than we always hoped and believed ourselves to be. 

We all risk becoming people whose lives are marked by "insipid misdoing" and "shabby achievement."  We let ourselves become less than we could be, and--what is perhaps even worse--we simply watch what we are becoming because we lack the incentive to stop. 

We know that others are leading us in a direction that doesn't look good, even from a distance.  The horizon is bleak, but we go along with it because we can't envision another direction. 

Or because turning back or turning around is just too damn hard. 

Life makes us tired, sometimes.  And people will laugh at us and think we're foolish for not wanting to be what they themselves have become.

So how can mere memories of the times when we were good, kind, connected and living up to our own hopes and high standards help us?  According to Dostoevsky, reminders of what we once were can buffer our moral selves in significant ways. 

If we were once good and kind, we can always be so again.  We can remember who we were and what we felt, and that will protect us. 

What if we took the measure of ourselves and of others by taking an inventory of the good memories we all have?  Would we see a very different person?

I'm not suggesting overlooking our own or others' faults, since we all do and say bad, unjust or cruel things, and we all need to be held accountable for those words and actions. 

But maybe we need to remind ourselves of ways to achieve a more balanced perspective in our assessment of our own and others' moral failings, insipid misdoings and shabby achievements.  Maybe the reason so many people don't turn back or away from the future selves they see themselves becoming is because they believe that it is too late, that they've gone too far.

Maybe it's up to the rest of us to remember--and to remind them--that it's not.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."